Let Me Show You a Few Things
So, Justin Timberlake.
As I’ve written about before, I am a non-ironic and completely unapologetic fan of his. I used to be all “ugh, pop music”, but then I realized that pop music has the capacity to be just as amazing as any other sort of music. Or maybe what I actually realized is that pop music basically describes every musical genre except for classical, except classical music was the popular music of its time, too, so the idea of “pop” is almost entirely coterminous with the idea of music that actual human people listen to. So that’s cool.
The point of all this, I guess, is that I think Justin Timberlake is pretty great. There is a definitive series of events that I can point to that led me to this point. First, I realized that ‘N Sync were not the candy-colored juggernauts they were presented as. They had a world of problems with their super-creepy Svengali manager, and there was actually something being said underneath the surface on No Strings Attached.
Then they released “Gone” as a single from their next album, Celebrity. (A bit on the nose, that title.) As documented on my 30 Days of Music post about the song, it’s where I realized that aside from maybe having something to say, Justin Timberlake might have a real talent.
After that came his debut album, Justified. At first I still didn’t care for him actively, but then I saw the video for “Cry Me a River” and holy shit, guys, here’s a dude with actual human feelings. It occurs to me as I write this how much we collectively use famous people as cyphers for ourselves, which I suppose we must have been doing when he wrote a song and made a video about how much it sucked when Britney Spears (allegedly, I guess?) cheated on him with fucking Wade Robson. We were all subconsciously thinking “if it can happen to that young, handsome, talented dude, then who are we to think it can’t happen to us?” Probably.
I am almost definitely not the first person to make this connection, and if I am then where the hell have you all been? Anyway, “Cry Me a River” is amazing.
The fourth and, for me, final step into accepting that I just really liked the guy came at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2003. If you recall, Madonna kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and it was really weird. Also, that was the year that Johnny Cash was nominated for Best Male Video for his version of “Hurt”, about which none other than Trent Reznor himself said “that song isn’t mine anymore.” Unfortunately, whoever voted on that category had no sense of history or anything, so Justin Timberlake won for “Cry Me a River”. I could tell something was going on when, as he walked to the stage, he looked visibly annoyed. Then he got to the mic and changed my view of him forever. “This is a travesty.”
The boy from Tennessee knew from his roots and spoke true to them. He knew Johnny Cash should have won that award as much as I did, and I have been a fan of his ever since that day.
All that being said, here’s the why: I was thrilled to death when I heard that he was finally making new music. I’ve been awaiting a new Justin Timberlake record for what seems like forever, and he has (remarkably) managed to do nothing to tarnish his public image over that time. I heard The 20/20 Experience was coming, and I was happy.
I was initially underwhelmed by “Suit & Tie”, not least because it appears that there is some confusion between a suit and a tuxedo. They’re not the same thing, guys. But that’s a super-pedantic quibble from a super pedantic person, so take from that what you will. I get that when you can get Jay-Z to drop a guest verse on your single, you get Jay-Z to drop a guest verse on your single. We could probably come up with less than a handful of people who have that kind of pull, and the ones who have it should use it. But I can’t help but think how much more interesting the song might have been if there’d been a verse from, say, Andre 3000. (Check out Frank Ocean‘s “Pink Matter” to get an idea of what I mean.)
I didn’t listen to “Suit & Tie” that much because I love albums as a format even as the idea of them becomes ever more antiquated by the day. I live in a headspace where I assume that the sequencing of a record matters and that the artist is after something with it. The practical upshot is that I didn’t have any sort of inundation or even real expectations when the album dropped, other than hoping it would be good.
Despite some mixed reactions, I think it is. Almost every song is good, even though it is weird how much you have to take the changes in his personal life into account to understand the thrust of the album. He went from bringing sexy back to writing a whole album of love songs with nary a real dance track to be found. Good on you, Jessica Biel.
There’s just one problem, and it’s a pretty serious one: for this record, he fell into the time-honored trap of not knowing how to end a fucking song, a problem that has plagued musicians since the invention of music, I would guess. But here’s a hint: don’t add three-minute codas to the end of every song, especially if every song is already five minutes long. Just by way of example, “Mirrors” is really, really good, and then it goes on foreeeeeeeeever afterward.
I have creeping doubts as to whether this record will occupy a place as heady as both of his previous albums do for me. It’s not as likely to get my blood going, and that has traditionally been what I am after when I listen to a Justin Timberlake album. Still, I remain unapologetic and unironic about at least one thing in my life. That has to be worth something, doesn’t it?